By Andrea J. Cook, Rapid City Journal
Despite complaints from four Native Americans, South Dakota Secretary of State Jason Gant has asserted that all Jackson County residents have the same access to voter registration and absentee voting as every South Dakotan.
“We are 100 percent equal across the state,” Gant said Thursday. “Every South Dakota county has at least one location within their county borders where people can absentee vote face-to-face.”
Four Lakota residents of Wanblee, a Jackson County community on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, have filed a federal lawsuit claiming the county is discriminating against Native Americans by not providing their community a satellite office for voter registration and absentee voting.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe’s Vice President Thomas Poor Bear is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims that the Jackson County Commission does not have a legitimate reason to refuse their request. It also states that the county has access to Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funding to help offset the cost of the satellite office.
On Friday, the plaintiffs filed a motion asking U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier to issue a preliminary injunction ordering Jackson County to open a satellite office in Wanblee for the remainder of the time leading up to the election.
As of 5 p.m. MST Friday, there was no court record of a decision by Schreier.
Jackson County Auditor Vicki Wilson would not comment on the details of the lawsuit, which is being handled by the county’s insurance company.
Wilson did say that before the state’s voter-registration laws changed, she had traveled to Wanblee to register voters when a notary’s signature was required.
During that time, Wilson said, she rarely had requests for absentee ballots.
Residents can now request a voter-registration form at the courthouse or go online and mail it to the county auditor’s office. Monday, Oct. 20, is the last day to register to vote in the Nov. 4 election.
Absentee ballots can be requested up to 5 p.m. on Nov. 3. Absentee ballot requests are available online, but they must be notarized before they are mailed to the auditor. Completed ballots can be returned by mail.
“That’s the same as it is in every other county that has a county seat,” Gant said.
The lawsuit claims that Native American residents in Jackson County are required to travel twice as far as white residents to register in person or vote absentee. Wanblee is about 27 miles, or 32 minutes by car, from the county seat at Kadoka, according to the plaintiffs. They say making the trip is also a financial hardship on Native Americans.
According to court documents, Jackson County commissioners were asked in May 2013 to establish a satellite office, but they denied the request because they did not know if their available HAVA funds would cover the cost. Under the HAVA program, counties can be reimbursed for election expenses, but only up to the amount allocated by the state to each county.
Jackson County has until Wednesday, Oct. 15, to reply to the plaintiffs’ complaint.